Location: 29 Hastings Street, West Vancouver, British Columbia V6B 1G4, Canada
Founded: Opened on July 7, 2009
Closed: June 30, 2010
Named after longtime volunteer Lucette Hansen, North America's first women-only pharmacy was founded by the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective (VWHC) in the summer of 2009. It was located in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods.
At the time, nearly all the so-called pharmacies in the area were little more than dingy methadone clinics "walled off behind two-inch thick Plexiglas" and offering "nothing but jugs of blue looking Kool-Aid" (methadone). In addition, the clinics were mostly dominated by male addicts, so area women did not feel safe. According to Caryn Duncan, the VWHC executive director, many women in the neighborhood had told her there was no secure place for them to fill their prescriptions or access health services:
"Women felt, 'I want a woman pharmacist. I want to know that when I walk in the door, I'm going to be getting sound women-centred care from a pharmacist. I can talk to her about emergency contraception or a vaginal infection, something that is very personal and intimate.'"
As subsequent research showed, most of these pharmacies/methadone clinics were small and provided little privacy to discuss health issues. This was a major drawback as pharmacists were the primary--and sometimes only--link that low-income downtown eastside residents had to the healthcare system. And it was a link that many neighborhood women were obviously intent on avoiding.
Planning efforts began in 2006. An advisory committee was formed that included a retired pharmacist and businesswomen. A business plan for the pharmacy was drawn up. With the support of many volunteers, foundation funding was gradually secured. Though it was to be housed in a century-old building, Lu's was designed (with the help of local architecture students) to look warm, contemporary, and inviting--and without the bullet-proof glass, bars, and iron grating common to the neighborhood. As an early press release stated:
Renovated largely with sustainable and recycled materials, the 3,000-square-foot facility will be operated by the VWHC as a social enterprise, meaning the profits from the pharmacy will fund the nonprofit organization's social programs.
At Lu's, women will receive the specialized attention, care and support that they need and want. Women will have their prescriptions filled and get advice from a pharmacist, access primary care offered by a nurse practitioner, buy over-the-counter products, access health information and workshops, and use the space to gather and meet.
Hardly less than a week after the grand opening, though, the proverbial manure hit the fan:
A Vancouver transgender activist says that the pharmacy owned by the Vancouver Women’s Health Collective has refused to fill her prescription. Jamie Lee Hamilton told the Georgia Straight on July 14 that Lu’s: A Pharmacy for Women denied her service because she wasn’t born female.
“I’m a member of the Downtown Eastside, a long-time resident,” Hamilton said. “I should be able to access my community pharmacy.”
According to Hamilton, the collective’s executive director, Caryn Duncan, explained that the pharmacy won’t serve male-to-female transgender people. Hamilton said she told Duncan that this policy is discriminatory. “She then said, ‘No, you have to be born female,’ ” Hamilton claimed.
In a July 15 phone interview with the Straight, Duncan said she told Hamilton that the collective is committed to its original vision for the pharmacy and its other services, which is to work with “women born women”. Duncan said that the organization has specialized in meeting the health needs of these women for more than 40 years.
“It is how we would like to continue to approach the work that we are providing women,” Duncan said.
She added that she isn’t sure that she would describe what happened as “refusing her service”, and claimed that Hamilton tried to force her way inside. Duncan also said she feels “very overwhelmed” by the pressure she’s received to provide service to transgender women.
“I have felt that people are employing intimidation tactics, and it’s hurtful to me personally,” she said. “As I said to Jamie Lee Hamilton, we want to help women here. We want to focus on the work that we do that’s very important to us and to the women who want to use our services. That’s where I want to put my energy.”
Hamilton described her efforts to obtain service at Lu’s pharmacy as a “watershed event” in the attempt to advance the rights of transgender women in Canada. At a July 11 protest outside the pharmacy, transgender activist Elizabeth Marston claimed that Lu’s policy would discriminate against some of the most vulnerable women in the neighbourhood.
Duncan characterized her actions as “generous” and “thoughtful”, emphasizing that she is willing to talk to Hamilton and her supporters about how to create a pharmacy for transgender women and their supporters.
Moreover, Duncan said she informed Hamilton of a pharmacy a couple of blocks away that would provide adequate care. “She mentioned she wanted to access the services of a community pharmacy,” Duncan said. “I shared with her that Reach [Community Health Centre] has a community pharmacy that’s trans-inclusive, and encouraged her to go to the Reach pharmacy on the Drive.”
According to Hamilton, Duncan told her that Lu’s pharmacy will serve transgender men who were born female. “It’s an ideology that’s really, really bizarre,” Hamilton said.
When asked about this, Duncan responded: “We will serve all women born women.”
Duncan and Hamilton will meet on Thursday (July 16). Hamilton said she will await the outcome of that conversation before deciding whether to file a complaint with the College of Pharmacists of B.C. The college’s code of ethics states that pharmacists must not be prejudiced by “factors such as the patient’s race, religion, ethnic origin, social or marital status, gender, sexual orientation, age, or health status”.
Needless to say, petitions were drawn up and the controversy spread over the blogosphere for the next few months. Not surprisingly, some viewed the pharmacy as inherently discriminatory against regular biological males--not just trans women. As one letter to the editor complained,
"Why is it left to Jamie Lee Hamilton and the transgender community to challenge Lu’s Pharmacy’s proudly stated intent to serve only “women born as women” when this blatant discrimination should concern all of us? For example, men who might wish to have their prescriptions filled."
In addition, it wasn't long before another trans woman critic was accusing the VWHC of "exclusion, othering, and silencing" indigenous women, sex workers, and drug-addicted women as well--all because the collective had had the sheer audacity to create a place that was nicer the standard bars-on-the-window methadone clinic. In fact, the VWHC was practically in bed with the "forces of gentrification!"
The gentrification smear was clearly off-base, as much thought had been given to this very issue in the design stages--had the critic bothered to do a little research, this would have been obvious.
As a result of the continuing controversy, the collective finally began welcoming "self-identified women" to the pharmacy and resource centre on January 21, 2010.
But just one week shy of its first anniversary, Lu's closed. According to a BWHC spokesperson, they just couldn't attract the funding and the number of clients they needed. As a result, the pharmacy had become a financial drain that endangered the operation of their other services.
Photo: Lu's Pharmacy, July 2009. Interior photo here.